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Lani Telian, Department of Public Health



When it comes to expiration dates, there is a lot of confusion between the dates listed on food packages. This misunderstanding can cause you to get sick from eating foods with high levels of bacteria. Between “Use by,” “Best if used by,” and “Sell by” dates, people aren’t always clear on the differences between them and what they mean. Take my own family, for example.


On one hand, there is my mother who won’t buy anything with a “Sell by” date that is within that same month. Then there is my grandmother, who to this day has cans of food in her cabinet with a “Use by” expiration date of July 2006, because she claims she can tell when its time to throw something away. While I love them both dearly, there are much better and safer methods for knowing how long you can hold on to foods safely, and when it’s time to throw them out. As September is National Food Safety Education Month, we’re celebrating by shedding some light on the meanings of different types of expiration dates. 

The “Use by” or “Discard by” date refers to the date that foods can be safely used by. After this date, the bacteria that lives in foods can begin to grow to high levels which make the food unsafe to eat. Once this date has passed, be sure to throw this food away.

The “Best if used by” date means the quality of foods may not be as great after the date passes.  Foods are generally still safe to eat, though they may taste a little stale.

The “Sell by” date is when products should be sold by stores for safety and quality purposes. However, these foods are usually still taste good and are safe to eat for another three or four days.

Freezing foods slows down bacterial growth, so expiration dates aren’t necessarily accurate. That said, Nana if you’re reading this, take that 4-year old bag of shrimp out of your freezer, please!

Whether its milk, canned tomatoes or chicken breast, make sure you understand the dates on the package. Knowing what these dates mean will help you ensure that the foods you and your family eats are safe and delicious!


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